SCHLADMING, Austria – Austrian ski officials are trying to calm reactions to Marcel Hirscher’s controversial win in this month’s Zagreb slalom, hoping to prevent Austrian and Croatian fans from misbehaving during the annual Schladming night race Tuesday.
“We don’t want fans to oppose each other,” Austrian men’s head coach Mathias Berthold said Monday. “We want a ski party like every year. That’s why it is important to cool down emotions.”
Berthold acknowledged Sunday that Hirscher apparently straddled a gate while winning in Zagreb. That usually warrants immediate disqualification but it went unnoticed by the judges.
The incident has been condemned by one of Hirscher’s main rivals, Ivica Kostelic of Croatia, which has led to concerns over possible fan protests or even violence at this week’s race. The night slalom is usually visited by up to 50,000 spectators, including several thousand Croatians.
The sport director of the Austrian ski federation, Hans Pum, added “we’ve always had a very friendly relationship to the Croatian federation. We don’t need chauvinism in ski racing.”
Hirscher and Kostelic also tried to play down the Austrian-Croatian animosity by publicly shaking hands during Monday evening’s bib draw on Schladming’s central square.
When Hirscher’s violation came to light, it sparked an angry reaction from Kostelic, the defending World Cup champion who finished third in the Jan. 5 race and would have overtaken Hirscher for the lead in the overall standings if the Austrian had been disqualified. He seized the lead anyway this past weekend, and is currently 130 points ahead of Hirscher.
“It’s just one race, but the shame lasts forever,” Kostelic said, referring to an unwritten rule among ski racers to stop their run as soon as they noticed they passed a gate incorrectly.
Hirscher also skied on after straddling gates in Wengen, Switzerland, last week and in Kitzbuehel, Austria on Sunday, though the jury did disqualify him on both these occasions.
“We had this situation, we had the race in Zagreb, who says he hasn’t done it in more races,” Kostelic said. “This has become a very unclear picture.”
Pum called Kostelic’s comments “unnecessary” as they suggest Hirscher may have deliberately breached the rules on several occasions.
Kostelic had no evidence for such a claim, but said “you can also go to the court when you have a lot of indications.”
The straddle was first reported this weekend in an Austrian newspaper, which cited an unnamed Austrian ski official as saying coaches had noticed the incident while studying footage of Hirscher’s run a few days after the race.
The federation was running an internal investigation to find out who disclosed that information to the newspaper, Pum said Monday.
A straddle happens when a skier passes a gate with one ski on each side of the stick, although sometimes the violation is hard to spot without television replays.
Hirscher said he often doesn’t feel whether he passes a gate with both skis on the right side because of his skiing technique.
“My turn is almost completed when I arrive at a gate so I straighten up my race line from there,” the Austrian said. “Many times, my boot or the binding hits the gate and that does not feel any different from straddling that gate.”
Other racers were reluctant to accuse Hirscher of purposely ignoring his mistakes, but many say they almost always notice when straddling a gate.
“Maybe I don’t feel it in two out of a thousand cases,” Italy’s Cristian Deville said after winning the slalom in Kitzbuehel.
Second-place Mario Matt of Austria also didn’t back up his teammate’s explanation.
“I always notice it, maybe from a couple of hundred times I would not notice it once,” Matt said. “Normally, you do feel it.”
According to Berthold, his team has clear guidelines on how to react in such cases.
“If someone straddles a gate, he stops,” Berthold said. “That’s the rule within our team.
“But if a racer isn’t sure, maybe because he catches a bump at the same time, you have to understand, from an athlete’s perspective, that he continues his run.”
Regardless whether Hirscher straddled a gate or not, the result of the Jan. 5 event will not be corrected as the FIS only accepts protests within 15 minutes after a race ending.
“If there was real evidence that I really straddled a gate in Zagreb, then they can take my 100 points and my prize money back. I only want to win in a fair way,” said Hirscher, who was hoping to clear the air with Kostelic before Tuesday’s race.
“I have a lot of respect for the great athlete Kostelic … but it’s not him nor me who decides, it’s only the race jury. I want this discussion to stop. I just want to race.”